Albert Woodfox, the last of the three “Angola Three” prisoners still behind bars, was released on Friday — his 69th birthday — after spending more than four decades in solitary confinement.
His release came as Woodfox, facing the prospect of a third trial for murder, pleaded no contest to two lesser crimes Friday, reaching an agreement with prosecutors that allowed him to walk free.
Woodfox continues to maintain his innocence in the death of Brent Miller, a prison guard killed at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, called Angola, in 1972. He and two other men became known as “Angola Three,” a group that was the focus of international efforts rallying against their solitary confinement and the conditions of their imprisonment.
“Although I was looking forward to proving my innocence at a new trial, concerns about my health and my age have caused me to resolve this case now and obtain my release with this no-contest plea to lesser charges,” Woodfox said in a statement released through his attorneys. “I hope the events of today will bring closure to many.”
It is believed that Woodfox spent more time in solitary confinement than any other prisoner in American history, according to his attorneys.
An official with the West Feliciana Parish Detention Center told The Post that Woodfox was being held there and would be released Friday. Woodfox left Friday afternoon, walking alongside his brother, Michel Mable, to a waiting car.
Shortly after 2 p.m., a reporter outside the center posted a video showing Woodfox walking out:
Albert Woodfox just walked out of jail pic.twitter.com/s5SEPZV9mH
— Maya Lau (@mayalau) February 19, 2016
Woodfox has been convicted of Miller’s killing twice before, but both convictions were overturned amid claims of poor legal representation and racial discrimination. He was indicted a little over a year ago for the same crime.
Woodfox and Herman Wallace were convicted of murder in Miller’s stabbing and placed in isolation, along with Robert King, who had been convicted of another crime. King was released in 2001, while Wallace was released in 2013; he died of cancer four days later.
Miller’s siblings criticized the development on Friday at the courthouse where Woodfox entered his pleas.
“A piece of our hearts has been jerked out of our bodies,” Stan Miller said while facing Woodfox, according to the Advocate of Baton Rouge. Wanda Callender, Miller’s sister, said “this was slammed in our face.”
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry said Friday that the decision to reach a plea agreement with Woodfox was necessary, because otherwise he believed that a federal judge would eventually allow Woodfox to go free without admitting guilt.
“After carefully considering all of the facts and circumstances surrounding this case and its procedural history, as it stands today – our team of prosecutors believes this plea is in the best interest of justice,” who took office last month, said in a statement.
Landry described the outcome as “a conviction,” saying that Woodfox “stands convicted of the homicide of Brent Miller.” Attorneys for Woodfox, though, said that by pleading no contest to lesser charges, he was not admitting guilt, and they said again Friday that he was maintaining his innocence.
As part of the plea agreement, Woodfox has waived the right to appeal his sentence. He was sentenced to 42 years behind bars and given credit for time served, Landry said.
Landry also offered his thanks to Miller’s family for offering “courage and cooperation” in what he called a “very difficult decision.”
Amnesty International decried the legal case against Woodfox and Wallace in a 2011 report.
“No physical evidence linking the men to the guard’s murder has ever been found; potentially exculpatory DNA evidence has been lost; and the convictions were based on questionable inmate testimony,” the report stated.
Woodfox’s release comes as the country is increasingly shifting away from solitary confinement in the wake of research showing that it can have a devastating impact on people, with research showing that it produces catastrophic psychological effects.
Woodfox’s release should “mark a pivotal new chapter in reforming the use of prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails,” Jasmine Heiss, a senior campaigner with Amnesty International USA, said in a statement. “Moving forward, Woodfox’s case must serve as a tragic reminder of the cruelty inflicted by the prison system at its most extreme.”
Last month, President Obama announced that he was banning solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prison. In outlining his reasons, he tied his decision to the case of Kalief Browder, a young man in New York who spent a significant portion of his young life in solitary before committing suicide.
“How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?” Obama wrote in an op-ed announcing the change. “It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.”
A judge had ordered Woodfox’s release last June and said he could not be put on trial a third time. The judge cited Woodfox’s age, medical issues and decades spent in solitary confinement. The judge also noted that it would be tough for him to mount another defense since so many of the witnesses in the case had died.
The state quickly fought the order, with then-attorney general James D. “Buddy” Caldwell filing an emergency stay motion trying to prevent Woodfox’s release. A federal appeals court reversed the judge’s decision and said that Woodfox had to remain imprisoned, and last November a court said that he could face a third trial.
[This story has been updated. First published: 2:16.]